Compassion for the Religious

This piece was originally published in The Humanist.

“These people bring it on themselves.”

“Their hijinks should be held up as an example.”

“We can’t be soft on these people.”

call 911
These are some of the reactions I got when I posted a piece of news on my Facebook page, and wrote my commentary about it. The piece of news: A person had gotten stuck in a consensual but dangerous situation involving unconventional sexuality, had called 911 for help… and then had their story spread all over the Internet, with all the lurid details including the person’s name, when the recording of the 911 call was made public.

These reactions came, as far as I can tell, from atheists. Given the context, they were almost certainly atheists. But their anger and contempt wasn’t directed at the people who had exposed the 911 caller. It wasn’t directed at the people all over the Internet who were ridiculing him. It didn’t come from a humanist embrace of consensual human sexuality, and it wasn’t directed at the people who were dragging this person’s private sex life all over the Internet and taking gleeful pleasure in mocking it.

It was directed at the person who had placed the 911 call. And it was sharing in the Internet’s gleeful pleasure.


Because the person who made the 911 call was a priest.

He was a priest. And therefore, according to these atheists on my Facebook page, he had abdicated any right to call 911 for help when he was in danger, without having his sex life dragged all over the Internet. He was a hypocrite. Actually, we don’t know that for sure — we don’t know anything about this priest other than what he said in the 911 call, and we don’t know whether he was in a conservative church that practiced a lot of sexual shaming, or a more inclusive one that cherry-picked out the nasty pits of Catholic sexual shame. But he had perpetuated an institution — the Catholic Church — that’s created pointless sexual guilt for exactly the kinds of activities he was engaging in. So on at least some level, he was a hypocrite. And the punishment for religious hypocrisy — according to these people on my Facebook page — should be the public shaming of his private sexuality, and of his call for help. Even if the result is that other people with unconventional sexualities are now more afraid to call 911 if they need help, for fear that they’ll be exposed and humiliated… that’s okay. That’s a price these folks are willing to pay, if it means we can expose a religious sexual hypocrite. Another one. This week.

If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some other comments from the same discussion: “I am glad he was humiliated.” “You deserve whatever embarrassment is heaped upon you when your hypocrisy is revealed… I am glad that I live in a world where that dbag was forced to own up to his hypocrisy.” “It is his and his fellow clergy’s fault that ‘unconventional’ sex is taboo. Fuck him.” “Priests are terrorists and con-men.” “When you know the history of these institutions, you have no sympathy for these people…. Fuck this wrinkled old sack of hypocritical horseshit.”

I found this profoundly upsetting.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry
I am, as anyone knows who’s at all familiar with my work, a passionate defender of atheist anger. I literally wrote the book on atheist anger (“Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless”). I think anger can be a powerful tool in a social change movement: in fact, I think it’s a necessary one, one that no social change movement I know of has ever been able to do without. I think anger motivates us to correct injustice, to alleviate harm, to make the world a better place. And I can absolutely understand the anger at the sexual hypocrisy of some leaders in the Catholic Church, who shame their followers for the exact sexual practices they themselves partake in. Hell, I share it.

But there’s a difference between anger and hatred.

Here’s the thing. Religion, and the harm that so often comes from it, creates a complex moral paradox: The people who are perpetrating the harmful things about religion are, for the most part, also its victims. And vice versa. Which means — among other things — that we need to have at least some degree of compassion for the people we’re angry at.

The people who traumatize their young children with vivid and horrific images of hell were, themselves, traumatized by those horrors. The religious leaders who fill their flocks with close-minded ignorance and hateful bigotry were, themselves, taught that ignorance and bigotry are divine virtues, dearly treasured by God. The people who are warping the sexuality of their kids and teenagers, filling them with guilt and shame over normal healthy feelings, were, themselves, warped in this same way. The perpetrators of religion are also its victims. And as humanists and atheist activists, we’re supposed to have compassion for the victims of religion.

And a priest who felt he had to be secretive about his unconventional sexuality because it was forbidden by the teachings of his church… that is a perfect example of this principle in action. Sure, if someone is an immensely powerful, truly horrible perpetrator of religion — Osama Bin Laden, Jerry Falwell, the Pope — I could see the anger/ compassion balance tilting pretty strongly in the direction of anger. But a kinky priest who was giving himself pleasure that his Church preaches against? Is that really an appropriate target for our unbridled, contemptuous, take-no-prisoners rage? Talk to the folks at the Clergy Project, the support organization for clergy members who have become atheists. Ask them what it’s like to be a member of the clergy who no longer believes in the teachings of their religion… whether those teachings are, “Kinky sex is bad,” or, “God exists.” Talk to them about how trapped they feel, how isolated, how ashamed, how afraid. And then tell me that they’re terrorists and con-men, that you have no sympathy for them, that their hijinks should be held up as an example, that they deserve whatever embarrassment is heaped upon them, that you are glad for their humiliation.

Our anger about religion is supposed to come from a place of compassion. It’s supposed to come because we see so much dreadful harm committed by religion, and we desperately want to see it end. When anger at religion turns into hatred — and when it becomes so hateful that it gets uncompromisingly aimed at the very people our compassion should be motivated by, simply because they’re part of the toxic system — it has gone seriously wrong.

I do not want an atheist movement where anger at religion is so blind that we lose all compassion for anyone who’s involved in it. I do not want a movement where we reflexively hate all priests so much — without knowing anything about them — that we think it’s okay that they should risk their safety and their life rather than call for help. I do not want a movement where the public humiliation of religious sexual hypocrites is so important to us that we don’t even care that other people, people who aren’t priests but who share this one’s sexual proclivities, are now being made even more afraid to call 911 when they need help.

Reading these Facebook responses… it was like a caricature of atheism, drawn by someone who hates atheists. But it was atheists drawing the caricature themselves. A self-portrait. And it’s not a portrait I want any part of.

Compassion for the Religious
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22 thoughts on “Compassion for the Religious

  1. 2

    I agree with you on this, Greta. This sounds like it is coming from smug schadenfreude.

    A slight aside, I found a helpful pronunciation guide for schadenfreude, by the way, hope this helps someone 😉

    (warning: not the actual pronunciation)

  2. 4

    @3 Yes. It’s off the mark. You are almost certainly not confused enough to think otherwise. The vast majority of religious people are victims of the things we dislike/hate religion for, and that includes clergy. The same compassionate and altruistic urges that we admire in humanist activists lead Christians to become ministers and priests. There certainly are terrorists and con men in the church, and religion can even help hide and support them, but they are certainly not the majority.

    Even if they were the majority, I would guess most of the terrorists and a few of the con men are STILL victims, we just rightly feel less sympathy for them.

  3. 5

    @4. Brett:
    You know for a fact what drives people to join the clergy? Do you read minds?

    And, last I checked, the road to hell was paved with good intentions.

    And, while I might be willing to grant that they’re not necessarily terrorists (although, the BS smell of hell still hangs around) ALL clergy are con-men, regardless of whether they’ve bought into the con and are drinking the snake oil (is that for internal or external use??:D) or just selling it ’cause they need a job.

    I don’t care about the personal stories that we can twist til there’s naught left but our take on them. What matter are actions. By their actions, clergy are con-men, and as long as the whiff of hell hangs around (be it as the elephant in the room) they’re terrorists (if highly ineffectual, “compassionate” ones).

  4. 6

    @remuss, doesn’t calling someone a con-man by definition mean that you believe they know better, but are deliberately deceiving others?

    My experience as a recently former believer leads me to think that the vast, vast majority of religious people (and religious leaders) are really “true believers”.

    I even think that the vast majority of high profile religious leaders and televangelists (Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn, probably even Peter Popoff) are true believers as well, despite their easier-to-criticize actions.

  5. Daz

    @5 remuss

    ALL clergy are con-men, regardless of whether they’ve bought into the con

    There’s a name for someone who takes part in a con whilst not being party to the falsity of the claim being made. We call this person a “victim” of that con.

  6. 8

    I appreciate your concern for the lack of sympathy shown in these comments. And you’re certainly right that anyone – even those who promote sex-negative attitudes – deserves to be safe in sexual encounters and to get help if needed.

    But I wonder if the situation, taken as a whole, can be seen in a different light.

    It appears to me there are two broad issues here, regarding this person and his rights or interests. The first is the violation of his privacy by revealing his 911 call and the details of his situation. The second is the public commentary on that situation when it became known. Obviously the two are related, but they are not identical, and they can be treated separately. (For instance, even if nobody had commented on the release of the emergency-call information, that would still have been a violation of privacy. And, even if that information had been revealed legitimately, for example as evidence in a lawsuit that he filed against the person who harmed him, the issue of mocking him over it would still be relevant. So the two events – the revelation and the commentary on it – have independent moral implications.)

    This situation seems analogous, to me, to cases of government whistleblowing, such as by Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden. It was illegal for them to do what they did, and attempts were made (abortively) to hold them legally accountable for it in both cases. But the information they revealed was important, and public commentary on it was encouraged, and valuable. Perhaps something similar is the case here.

    Obviously the release of private information from an emergency situation is a gross violation, and it may have grave consequences for others needing emergency assistance in the future. Without further discussion, I think everyone can agree that this should not have been done, and should not be condoned.

    But, given that the privacy violation did occur, how do we regard the second issue – the public discussion of the revealed information? In some cases, for instance the use of private information to shame or harass abortion patients or rape victims (both of which have been done in the past), that publication is a further violation which should inspire outrage. In other cases, for instance the use of secret information to spotlight and criticize government abuses, that publication is of great benefit and should be encouraged. Which end of the spectrum does the kinky-priest case fall closest to? Without going into extensive analysis, I think reasonable people can disagree on that question. (Personally, I fall toward the “got what he deserved” end – though, again, I do not think the original privacy violation should have occurred in the first place.)

    It would take a lot of discussion to resolve that question. I simply note that, since it is the focus of a moral issue that is distinct from, and not dependent on, the moral question whether the 911 call should have been publicized to begin with, and it does touch on an issue that is itself of great social importance – religious oppression and religious hypocrisy – a case can be made that this should be regarded as an instance of unjustified, but still useful, whistleblowing, and not just prurient bullying.

  7. 9

    So the two events – the revelation and the commentary on it – have independent moral implications.

    Kevin Keith @ #8: I don’t agree. A significant amount of the commentary was about the revelation. It wasn’t just about the hypocrisy of being a priest engaging in kinky masturbation practices. It was taking gleeful pleasure in the priest’s exposure. It was applauding the revelation as an example of a fair come-uppance.

    Also, in this particular case, the commentary can’t be separated from the revelation — and it can’t be separated from the harm done by the revelation. A significant amount of the harm done by the revelation is the perpetuation of the shame that gets heaped on kinky people for being kinky… and the fact that many kinky people are afraid to call 911 or otherwise ask for help when they need it. The “commentary” actively perpetuates that harm.

    a case can be made that this should be regarded as an instance of unjustified, but still useful, whistleblowing, and not just prurient bullying.

    How, exactly, is it “useful”? There are already countless news stories about the sexual hypocrisy of priests. Ones that are a lot more damning than this incident, in which the priest wasn’t doing anything non-consensual or otherwise harming anyone. What useful purpose is served by adding one more tiny twig to the bonfire? And even if you argue that this tiny twig is useful, how could that minuscule purpose possibly counteract the great harm done by making kinky people — or indeed, anyone in an embarrassing but dangerous situation — even more afraid to call 911 or otherwise seek help when they need it?

  8. 10

    No, BradC, a con tells us nothing about what the con man (person?) knows or doesn’t.
    By definition to con someone is “To swindle (a victim) by first winning his or her confidence; dupe.” (from the No mention of intent or con man’s knowledge.

    @7. Daz,
    Really? They’re not taking part in the deception? They’re spreading the lies, without knowing that they’re truth. Their conviction doesn’t make the con any less of a con.

    Sorry,guys, but your sympathy doesn’t absolve them of their actions.

  9. 11


    It’s honestly a bit difficult to take this exchange seriously. You treat clergy as if they’re some strange exotic species or science fiction monster. You ask how I know their motivates and say I’d need to read minds.

    This is ludicrous. I know because my position hasn’t always been what it is now, and I had thought about ministry myself as a teenager. Many family members of mine have or have had positions of volunteer leadership in evangelical Christian churches. Because I don’t assume that all formerly religious atheist speakers (such as Dan Barker and Matt Dilahunty among others) are lying about their past motivations when they describe something that is the complete opposite of what you believe. I know because there is no reason to think that something in the genetic make-up of humans disables our inborn sense of morality just because we were born to Christian parents.

    How do you know they’re all con-men and terrorists? I’m assuming it’s not your vast experience personally getting to know Evangelical Christians.

  10. 12

    @11. Brett,
    As far as I’m concerned, priests might as well be aliens. I don’t share those convictions.

    Furthermore, you see, your generalizations, while valid, don’t necessarily account for the motivations of all. Maybe you’re just nice in your family? And, using atheists as an example of what drives theists…isn’t compelling. Sorry. That is not to say that the priests are necessarily malicious, but, that in and of itself doesn’t make their actions beneficent. And that’s what matters.

    Now, for the record:
    They’re con-men because they’re selling a lie. Or, are you going to tell me that religion is actually true?
    They’re terrorists in as much as the threat of hell is always there, whether explicitly or implicitly. What bigger threat than eternal torment can you imagine? And they’re using this fear that they contrive in order to get people to change their behavior. Sounds like a terrorist to me. But, by all means, do tell me that the road to hell is not actually paved with good intentions.

    Sorry, but, while they might be pawns in the game, they’re still promoting the game, so, whatever compassion I might feel doesn’t actually make up for their immoral actions, regardless of how well you or they might be able to justify them personally. Promoting lies is immoral.

    If you find the language inflammatory, then how would you tone it down?

  11. 13

    remuss @ #10: I agree that priests bear a good amount of moral responsibility for the harm they do. But there is, in fact, a useful and important moral distinction between consciously and intentionally doing harm (such as a con artist swindling someone), and unintentionally doing harm (through an insufficiently rigorous pursuit of the truth, for instance, which is what I think many priests are guilty of). It’s the reason we have longer prison sentences for first-degree murder than for negligent homicide. When people use the phrase “con artist,” they generally mean the former — and it’s inaccurate to use it to describe the latter.

    And even if we conceded that priests really are con artists… how is that relevant to the moral issue at hand? Do con artists not have the right to call 911 when they’re in physical danger, without being subjected to public humiliation for private acts?

    And maybe more to the point: Is it really so difficult to be angry with people, and still feel empathy for them? Is it really so difficult to hold both emotions at once? Is it really so difficult to have some degree of moral nuance? Is it really that much easier — and is it any better — to just write people off as “con artists”? Isn’t this sort of all-or-nothing moral thinking one of the main things we object to so strongly in religion?

  12. 14

    As far as I’m concerned, priests might as well be aliens. I don’t share those convictions.

    remuss @ #12: So now you’re dehumanizing them? You don’t share their convictions… so you don’t see them as human? They might as well be aliens?

    Is that the morality that you think is so superior to religion?

  13. 15

    @14. (I’ll address your other point later),
    Sorry if my language is inexact:
    But, I do find the mentality alien. It is. I don’t now nor never have had similar convictions. For the majority (entirety?) of my adult life I’ve not had religious beliefs. So, that kind of mindset is completely alien. I can’t fathom being like them.
    Now, you’ll notice that my observation, my comparison is just that. I don’t advocate action against them, and I don’t advocate harming them because I find them alien. I’ll give them a good verbal thrashing by pointing out their logical/moral/cognitive inadequacies, but that’s as “evil” as I’ll get.

    Sorry if the language appears scary, but there’s no call to action behind it. I don’t find them any more or any less special than the majority of humanity, and I’m somewhat of a misanthrope. That doesn’t mean that I want all or most of humanity to go away, or any such thing. It just means that I find these particular individuals alien. (Funnily enough, I’m an alien in this country, so…)

  14. 16

    I do find the mentality alien. It is. I don’t now nor never have had similar convictions. For the majority (entirety?) of my adult life I’ve not had religious beliefs. So, that kind of mindset is completely alien. I can’t fathom being like them.

    remuss @ #15: Then in that case, I would strongly urge you to spend some time talking with them, or reading their writings. In particular, I would strongly urge you to read some of the writings of atheists who were once clergy people, such as the people in the Clergy Project: Theresa McBain, Seth Andrews, Catherine Dunphy, Jerry DeWitt. (Jerry Dewitt has an excellent new book out — “Hope after Faith: An Ex-Pastor’s Journey from Belief to Atheism” — that gets across both the intellectual and emotional reality of being a pastor.) Find out how these folks think and why they think it before you dismiss their mindset as “completely alien.”

    Because — and I cannot emphasize this enough — THESE ARE HUMAN BEINGS. Their mentality is not radically different from any other human mentality. The mental processes that lead them to believe in God and to teach others to believe in God — rationalization, confirmation bias, a tendency to see pattern and intention even where none exists, a tendency to believe what others around you believe and what authority figures tell you and what your parents taught you in your childhood, etc. — are mental processes that are universally human. These people simply apply these mental processes to a question that you don’t.

    And you can’t dehumanize people and then say blithely, “but there’s no call to action behind it.” Dehumanization is an action. As someone who has been told that I’m less than fully human because of being queer, because of being female, because of being fat, because of being kinky — and yes, because of being an atheist — I can assure you that treating people as not fully human is an action… and it’s an action with serious, harmful consequences. And if you ever do it in my blog again, I will ban you so fast it will make your head spin.

  15. 17

    @16. Greta,
    I was gonna reply to the previous comment, as stated earlier, but in light of 16 I will stop bloviating and mansplaining. We’re obviously on different pages (I’m not saying “Let’s agree to disagree,” I hate that), and your need for and right to a safe space to call your own overrides my need to explain my uncouth posts.

    Should you find it necessary or right, feel free to remove my previous comments.

    Have a good one.

  16. 18

    I feel the hostile reactions came from the same sort of in group – out group hostility that first made me so disdainful of religion. The guy’s a priest, he’s “one of them”, so he deserved everything he got. It’s depressing to see such thoughtless othering from Atheists.

  17. 19

    This article really spoke to me. I used to be a member of this cult called the Unification Church and after I had left, I had joined a group of other “Ex-Moonies,” but was always put off by how hateful everyone else was towards people associated with the cult, even though those people were just as much victims as we were. :/

  18. 22

    @4, 6, 7, and Greta 🙂 (Did I miss anyone?)

    OK, Having thought about it some more, they’re not con-men. So, I was wrong.

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